Monday, September 13, 2021
St Trinian’s is a school for young ladies in Barchester in England. Only the pupils are not exactly young ladies. To describe them as juvenile delinquents would scarcely be adequate. They’re more like a swarm of wild beasts, youthful gangsters, racketeers, con artists, terrorists and hardened criminals. They have been responsible for a county-wide reign of terror.
The school, run by Millicent Fritton (Alastair Sim), is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy but salvation may be at hand in the person the Princess Fatima (Lorna Henderson). Fatima is one of the seventeen daughters of a wealthy Arab oil sheikh. Miss Fritton hopes that young Fatima will be a goldmine.
She is alarmed by what she finds at St Trinian’s. The girls are operating a very lucrative business - they have a distillery set up in the chemistry lab. They’re heavily involved in gambling. She’s also concerned by the presence of Flash Harry (George Cole) who appears to be the frontman for the girls’ gambling and bootlegging operations.
The plot revolves arounds the attempts by Clarence and the Sixth Form to nobble Arab Boy and the equally determined efforts of Miss Fritton and the Fourth Form to foil their schemes.
There’s also a hockey match. As Sergeant Gates observes, for the girls of St Trinian’s it’s more like jungle warfare than hockey with most of the opposing team ending up unconscious in the first aid tent.
Frank Launder directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Sidney Gilliat. They had worked together as screenwriters on The Lady Vanishes and plenty of other notable films. Gilliat was also responsible for the screenplay of the bizarre but fascinating 1934 British musical Chu Chin Chow.
It’s available on DVD in a Region 2 boxed set which includes the first four St Trinian’s movies.
The Belles of St Trinian’s is enormous fun. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
The story takes place in Calcutta which is an interesting time for a movie in such a setting - a year before the independence of India and with China in turmoil as well (The Chinese Civil War would end in 1949). The movie was shot in 1945 (but not released until two years later) so it still has that wartime feel to it although the war is never mentioned directly.
Neale Gordon (Alan Ladd) and Pedro Blake (William Bendix) fly DC-3s for a Chinese airline. Their buddy Bill Cunningham flies for the same airline, until he gets murdered. He was strangled, with a Thuggee strangling cord. These three Americans have been close friends for years so there’s no way that Neale and Pedro are going to leave things to the police. They’re going to do some digging into this case on their own.
Neale is also rather curious about the $8,000 diamond necklace that Bill had given Virginia. Bill never had that much money in his life. Neale is inclined to be suspicious of gambling club owner Eric Lasser (Lowell Gilmore) and an Indian businessman named Malik (Paul Singh), but then Neale is a suspicious kind of guy. He’s also inclined to be very suspicious of Virginia. His attitude towards Virginia oscillates back and forth.
Neale discovers part of what’s going on, which involves smuggling, but he doesn’t know the crucial things and he doesn’t know if he can trust Virginia. And that could be dangerous.
Seton I. Miller’s screenplay has more than just hints of film noir. This is pretty close to full-blown noir but with a few interesting twists. Neale Gordon is a good man but his weakness is his excessive cynicism. He and his friends are leading reckless aimless lives and seem to be deliberately flirting with death (there’s a definite similarity here to the Howard Hawks aviation classic Only Angels Have Wings). If he could learn to trust women he might find happiness, but the difficulty is finding a woman who really can be trusted (this is film noir world and it does contain women who should be approached with extreme caution).
Gail Russell is perhaps an odd choice for a femme fatale rôle but the most dangerous femmes fatales are the ones who seem sweet and innocent, and of course she may not actually be a femme fatale. Neale Gordon isn’t sure if she’s a black widow or if she really is a sweet innocent girl and the viewer is kept guessing as well. Most people seem to dislike Russell’s performance but I think it works rather well.
June Duprez almost steals the picture as Marina. She might turn out to be the woman who saves Neale, or she might be a victim of his cynicism and of the dangerous world she inhabits. Duprez has a genuinely interesting screen presence.
William Bendix is solid, as are all the supporting players.
This is not Calcutta in India, it’s Calcutta on the Paramount backlot, but while the setting might not be authentically Indian it is authentically exotic. This is the Calcutta that exists in film noir world.
Where Danger Lives, the Cornell Woolrich adaptation Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) and also the rather overheated but highly diverting Diana Dors vehicle The Unholy Wife (1957). He was particularly enamoured of very long takes which he always utilised effectively. Farrow is both underrated and slightly uncontroversial - a pious Catholic convert with a reputation for womanising and a man described by many of those who worked for him as a sadist.
Kino Lorber’s DVD offers a very good transfer and some extras including an audio commentary. It’s also available on Blu-Ray in the The Dark Side of Cinema IV boxed set.
Calcutta, which was reasonably successful at the box office, isn’t a great movie but I’m inclined to think that it’s been seriously underrated. It’s fine entertainment. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
Minor gangland figure Miller Starkie gets cut in half by no less than four shotgun blasts. He was a collector for gangster Max Troy. Troy and his hoodlums are the obvious suspects but gathering the evidence to bring a case against them will require patient methodical work. Which just happens to be what Sergeant Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith are very good at.
The trigger man has to be found. He will be found but these things take time.
Max Troy is subjected to bumper-to-bumper trailing. Friday and Smith sit right on his tail so he knows he’s being tailed. When he leaves his house they pull him over and they frisk him and make him empty his pockets. When he reaches his destination they pull him over and they frisk him and make him empty his pockets. Everywhere he goes the treatment is repeated. Troy is tough but no-one can stand that kind of relentless pressure indefinitely.
Friday is also a team player. He has no inclination to be a lone wolf or a maverick cop or to buck authority. He likes working as part of a team, because he knows that that is what works.
Jack Webb was a good director with an idiosyncratic style (which he invented) which worked perfectly for the TV series. He retains that style for the movie and it works here as well, and it gives the movie the same feel clipped hyper-realistic style.
The Dragnet movie was shot quickly and for very little money (from his TV experience Webb knew how to shoot quickly and efficiently) and it was a major box-office hit. In fact it was insanely profitable.
Jack Webb’s style as an actor was idiosyncratic as well but it works for me. And, as in the TV series, there are occasional moments of offbeat humour between Friday and Smith (which usually involved Smith’s odd ideas about health). The rest of the cast mostly comprises people that Webb worked with regularly and knew he could rely on and they’re generally extremely good. And they understood Webb’s approach.
The transfer on the Kino Lorber Blu-Ray is somewhat disappointing. It’s very uneven in quality, and at times the image is no better than VHS quality. Given Kino Lorber’s very good track record I assume that there were major problems with the source material which even a restoration couldn’t fix. At other times the image is excellent. The movie was shot in colour.
There’s an audio commentary from Toby Roan. Both 1.75:1 and 1.37:1 versions are included on the Blu-Ray but the movie was always intended to be screened widescreen.
If you love the TV series there’s no way you’re not going to love the movie. If you’re not familiar with the series it might just convert you into a fan. Highly recommended.
My review of the Dragnet TV series can be found here.
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) teaches at the local gymnasium (the German equivalent of a high school). He is a pompous and faintly ridiculous figure but he has an orderly respectable life which suits him. He is alarmed to discover that his pupils have been sneaking into the notorious Blue Angel night-club, to watch the rather lascivious performances of the famous Lola Lola (Dietrich). The Professor sets off for the Blue Angel to put a stop to this, and there he encounters Lola Lola herself. She flirts with him outrageously, having decided that he’s rather sweet.
Rath becomes obsessed by Lola Lola, with ultimately disastrous consequences.
Emil Jannings was a huge star in Germany at the time and the movie was intended as a star vehicle for him. Marlene Dietrich had been making films for several years but was still unknown even in Germany. The Blue Angel would change all that. After this film she was a certified international star and Paramount was soon waving cheque books in front of her.
There are elements of melodrama here but to a large extent the story plays out as farce, and it actually is very funny at times.
The conventional way to approach The Blue Angel is to see Lola Lola as a femme fatale who lures poor Professor Rath to his doom. That conventional view can be defended but what makes it such an interesting film is that all the evidence in favour of the conventional view is open to quite different interpretations.
When you watch the film carefully however that conventional view doesn’t quite stand up. When they first meet Lola Lola does have some fun at his expense but it seems to be good-natured flirtatious fun. When she goes up the spiral staircase in her dressing room, undresses and then tosses her panties down at him you could see that as the first stage in her plan to degrade him. In fact it’s much more likely that in her world this is a perfectly normal thing to do - she is used to dealing with men who take such things in their stride because that’s how her world works. She can’t be expected to understand that poor Rath has probably never seen a pair of ladies’ panties before, much less had a pair dropped on him. She’s simply being herself.
When he proposes to her she bursts out laughing but then she realises that he actually means it and she accepts. I think it’s important to note that she in no way manipulates him into marriage and she has nothing to gain from the marriage. She’s not trying to gain respectability - she is from first to last indifferent to respectability. She doesn’t marry him for his money because he doesn’t have any.
The wedding night scene gives the impression that she not only intends to have normal marital sexual relations with him but that she’s looking forward to it. There is not the slightest suggestion that she feels any distaste for the idea of sleeping with him.
She does of course end by destroying him, but I don’t think she ever had the slightest intention of doing so. What destroys the Professor is that he has tried to move from one world to another, to move from the world of order and respectability to the world of carefree fun and pleasure and he is simply not equipped to survive in that world. That’s not Lola Lola’s fault. It was a tragic error of judgment on Rath’s part, and if he’d been more worldly he could have had the best of both worlds - he could have secretly married Lola Lola or set her up as his mistress. But he’s not capable of doing that. It is he who insists on publicly marrying her and publicly proclaiming her as his wife. And when he starts to fall apart it’s because he cannot adapt to her world. Lola Lola has offered him what she has to give and it’s not her fault that it fails to make him happy. And remember, she never asked him to marry her and she was obviously happy to sleep with him without being married to him. She did not entice him into marriage by holding out the promise of sex to him.
I think it’s almost certain that Lola Lola has much more affection for Rath than von Sternberg does. It’s clear that von Sternberg sees him as a pompous authority figure who deserves to be taken down. It’s also just possible that much of the complexity of Lola Lola’s character comes from Dietrich’s extraordinarily sensitive performance.
Perhaps the best clue to the relationship is the line from her famous song from the movie (known in English of course as Falling In Love Again) - “Men swarm around me like moths to a flame/and if their wings get burnt, I can't be blamed.” Professor Rath should never have tried to leave his own world, but he freely chose to do so.
I think that seeing Lola Lola as a woman who destroys a man accidentally rather than deliberately makes the film a lot more interesting. And it makes her a much more fascinating and complex character. What makes it even more interesting is that while Lola Lola may not be a scheming femme fatale she is certainly a woman who lives uncompromisingly for pleasure. Adding another layer of complexity to the movie is that we’re not necessarily meant to condemn her for this, in fact we may be meant to admire her for it. My take on Lola Lola is that she’s a woman who wants to give love as well as receive it and that Rath is the first man who has actually wanted more from her than sex.
This movie has plenty of von Sternberg visual style (including some very definite Expressionist touches). An interesting point is that von Sternberg based Lola Lola’s kinky fetishistic look on the kinky fetishistic paintings of the Belgian Symbolist painter Félicien Rops.
The Eureka release includes both the German and English versions. It’s important to note that the English version is not a dubbed version. The entire film was shot twice, once in German and once in English. There are some differences between the two versions. It’s almost universally acknowledged that the German version is the superior version. The English version is slightly toned down. One of the many reasons for preferring the German version is that the German words to Falling In Love Again are Lola Lola telling us exactly what sort of woman she is, and this is completely lost in the English lyrics. The German lyrics to the song explain the whole movie.
The Blue Angel is a bona fide masterpiece that lives up to its reputation. Very highly recommended.
Saturday, August 21, 2021
Lulu, the heroine of Pandora's Box, is the mistress of Dr Ludwig Schön (Fritz Kortner). Schön is planning to marry a very respectable very suitable girl, Charlotte Marie Adelaide von Zarnikow. But giving up Lulu is going to be tricky. He doesn’t really want to give her up and she doesn’t want to let him go. There’s a strange old man who keeps hanging around Lulu, a rather sinister but as yet unexplained figure.
There are complications with Schön’s son and with Lulu’s best friend who appears to have a lesbian infatuation with Lulu.
It is difficult not to compare Pandora's Box to The Blue Angel. Apart from the names of the lead characters (Lulu in Pandora's Box and Lola Lola in The Blue Angel) there are many striking similarities. Both deal with women who ignore the social and sexual conventions of their time. Both have show business backgrounds. Both deal with men destroyed by a dangerous woman. Both deal with the immense power of female sexuality. The two films he made with Brooks were the peak of Pabst’s career while the seven films he made with Marlene Dietrich were the peak of von Sternberg’s career. Both directors slept with their respective leading ladies, so both actresses could claim to be both muse and lover to their directors. Both films are entirely dependent on the performances of their respective leading ladies. Both actresses were, in their private lives, sexual outlaws. And both Louise Brooks and Marlene Dietrich became stylistic icons as a result of these two films.
For such a legendary star Louise Brooks had a catastrophic film career. She also had what could be described as a colourful if frequently catastrophic life. She started as a dancer, broke into films, destroyed her own film career (by being totally unwilling to play by the rules and also as a result of her prodigious sexual appetites), she spent a lengthy period working as a call girl before being rediscovered and finding success as a writer (her book Lulu in Hollywood was a bestseller).
Writing about Pandora’s Box presents some challenges. The movie was not a success when it was released and it was soon forgotten. And within a few years of its release Louise Brooks was entirely forgotten. Both the movie and its star were rediscovered in the late 1950s. When obscure and forgotten movies or stars get rediscovered people tend to get rather carried away. It’s not very exciting to rediscover a forgotten film and find that it is in fact a fairly good film, but not a masterpiece. People want to believe that they have rediscovered a lost masterpiece. And when an obscure actress is suddenly rediscovered people don’t want to believe that she was a reasonably good actress, they want to believe that she was one of the all-time greats who had been unfairly forgotten.
Brooks gives a very competent rather naturalistic performance but the idea that is sometimes promoted that she single-handedly revolutionised film acting just doesn’t stand up.
Had Brooks declined the role Pabst’s second choice would have been Marlene Dietrich. The conventional view is that it’s fortunate for the world of cinema that Dietrich was not chosen. I do not agree. Dietrich was a far better actress with a much greater emotional range and might have made far more of the role.
There is no question that Louise Brooks, more than any other woman, captured the look of the Jazz Age. She had the face that suited the fashionable bob hairstyle, she had the body to wear the fashions of the era and she certainly had sexual allure, at a time when her kind of overt sexual allure was becoming a very big thing. It’s worth seeing Pandora's Box just to see Brooks at her most iconic. When you see this movie you’ll understand why the Louise Brooks look was a sensation. But while it’s an interesting movie it’s not a masterpiece. Worth a look.
Saturday, August 14, 2021
The movie opens with a shooting. Singing star Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) finishes a radio spot and goes home where Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) is waiting for her. Susan announces that she’s quitting her singing career. The two women quarrel. Susan runs upstairs in tears. Marian follows her into her room. A shot is heard. The housekeeper races upstairs to find that Susan has been shot. The police arrive and Marian tells them that she shot Susan.
Susan isn’t dead but the doctors say her survival is going to be touch and go.
Susan becomes a very big star indeed, with Marian and Luke managing her career. Marian in particular acts as her mentor.
Which gives Marian a plausible motive for trying to kill her - if Susan quit singing Marian would lose her meal ticket.
The first thing that needs to be cleared up about this movie is that its claims to being film noir are very thin indeed. It does star Gloria Grahame who was certainly a bona fide film noir icon but that is not enough to qualify this as a film noir. It’s a mystery melodrama. Not that there’s anything wrong with mystery melodramas.
Gloria Grahame is of course superb. She always was. She’s so good (and at times so adorable) that you have to feel sorry for Maureen O’Hara. She’s very good but she’s inevitably overshadowed by Miss Grahame. Everybody in the cast is overshadowed by Gloria Grahame. She plays Susan as not quite a bad girl, but one who is impulsive and unpredictable and at times manipulative. Susan is just trouble, even though she’s not really aware of it at times. Mostly she’s young and immature and has no idea what she’s doing and she gets away with it because she’s beautiful and talented.
I have to put on record the fact that I have mixed feelings about Nicholas Ray as a director. I like They Live By Night (which is more romantic melodrama than film noir) and Born To Be Bad and I love In a Lonely Place but Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause leave me cold and I thought Party Girl was embarrassingly bad. For me Nicholas Ray is a director who started promisingly but whose career went off the rails a bit. It’s undeniable however that he was very good at melodrama.
Herman J. Mankiewicz (yes, the guy who wrote Citizen Kane) wrote the screenplay and it has some problems. The solution to the mystery is blindingly obvious right from the start, even with some feeble attempts at misdirection. The script is, quite frankly, a bit of a mess.
The Warner Archive release offers a very good transfer without any extras.
A Woman’s Secret is a movie that seems to have been thrown together without any real thought as to what it was supposed to be. It just doesn’t quite work on any level. It actually might have worked better as an out-and-out comedy. Only worth seeing for Gloria Grahame’s extremely interesting and rather complex performance. For that it’s worth a rental.
Monday, August 9, 2021
The movie opens with the robbery of a jewellery store in which the jeweller is shot. Inspector Wayne (Duncan Lamont) is certain it’s the work of a gang he’s been after for quite a while. All he needs is some evidence.
Inspector Wayne’s publisher friend John Everton (Patrick Barr) and his wife Barbara Everton (Renée Asherton) are about to get unwittingly mixed up in this sordid crime.
The only thing that could make such a ghastly situation worse would be if Martin Radley now happened to be a desperate jewel thief (who calls himself Harry Bond among other aliases) who has just shot a man, a man who might well die. And if he decided that his only chance of survival was to blackmail Barbara.
Don Chaffey was a competent director who went on to have a successful career in television in Britain, Australia and the United States. His feature films included the disappointing slightly noirish sleaze thriller The Flesh Is Weak.
Screenwriter Allan MacKinnon had a not overly distinguished career (which included the reasonably effective railway spy thriller Sleeping Car to Trieste) before his premature death a year after this film was released. His screenplay for Time Is My Enemy is a bit contrived but it’s quite clever.
Renée Asherton as Barbara, Duncan Lamont as the policeman who gets emotionally entangled and Patrick Barr as the well-meaning husband all provide solid support but the movie belongs to Dennis Price.
Is it film noir? Thematically I think it does have some legitimate claims to being noir - we have a protagonist drawn into a nightmare world by a combination of bad luck and bad judgment. It’s also one of those noir films (and there were quite a few) in which a male character acts as the equivalent of a femme fatale.
The Kino Lorber British Noir II set also includes the disappointing The Interrupted Journey and the very good Cosh Boy and The Vicious Circle as well as Time Lock which I’ve not yet watched.
Time Is My Enemy is a decent little not-quite-noir but noirish B-movie and it’s recommended for Dennis Price’s performance.